St. Mary's (17-13) proved to be quite a handful for a No. 8 seed.
But No. 1 Tarleton State (24-7) wasn't quite ready to put the dancing shoes back in the closet on Saturday, slipping past the upset-minded Rattlers, 70-64.
Tarleton advances to tonight's South Central Regional Tournament semifinals, where they face No. 5 Southwest Baptist at 7:30 p.m. at Wisdom Gym.
"Anytime you're a No.1 seed and you play a first round game in your gym, there is a tremendous amount of extra pressure on you to advance. I'm proud of our guys for the way we maintained our poise while facing that pressure.
Avery Patterson got hot early and stayed that way most of the night for Tarleton. The senior hit 9-15 from the floor, including 5-9 from beyond the arc to finish with a game-high 23 points. Tarleton also benefitted from a double-double by Terrence Gamble, who scored 17 and grabbed 10 boards before fouling out during the final minute. Jeffrey Henfield was also in double figures, scoring 10.
St. Mary's was led by Nick Morey with 14, while Marus Hill and Allen Coleman each scored 12 and Roderick Ballard 11.
Tarleton was 44.4-percent from the floor, its best shooting percentage since hitting 55.6-percent in a rout of Eastern New Mexico on February 27. St. Mary's hit 47.1-percent from the floor, took three less attempts than the Texans, and was outscored 16-11 at the charity stripe.
St. Mary's took a 51-50 lead on an old fashioned 3-point play by Coleman, but the Texans outscored the Rattlers 20-13 from that point forward. During the closing surge, Gamble grabbed scored seven, grabbed two rebounds and dished out his only assist to set Patterson up for his final 3-point basket of the game.
Gamble attempted a game-high nine free throws. He was 2-6 before sinking his final three attempts in the closing minutes to help preserve the win. He attempted 14 free throws against Central Oklahoma in the LSC semifinals last weekend.
"We're going to keep going inside to him," Reisman said of teams fouling Gamble. "Our philosophy is built around going inside first then back out, and we're sure not changing that now."
St. Mary's coach Jim Zeleznak wasn't the least bit surprised by the physical play.
"We knew that's how it was going to be," said Zeleznak. Any time you play a team like Tarleton, the boys need to stay home and the men need to come out and play."
Tarleton began the game on a 10-2 tear, and built the only double-digit lead of the contest at 17-6. Patterson fueled the early run by connecting on his first three attempts from beyond the arc.
"I just wanted to try and be a leader tonight," said Patterson, who transferred to Tarleton from Division I St. John's for his senior season. "I've never been in a tournament game like this, but I knew if I could be the leader the rest of the guys would follow."
The Rattlers showed why they were able to win the Heartland Conference Tournament with a 21-6 push to climb out of the early hole. They took a 25-22 lead on a 3-ball by Bellard, and gained their biggest advantage of the evening on a lay-up by Dominique Richardson that made it 27-23 lead with 5:36 left in the first half.
Tarleton came back to score seven of the final nine points in the half, with four coming from Gamble, to lead 30-29 at the break.